In her brief 38 years, Emma Lazarus achieved an international reputation as a poet, social activist, literary critic, and Zionist, a legacy overshadowed by one sonnet, placed decades after her death in the Statue of Liberty. This sympathetic and invigorating biography, based on recently discovered correspondence, gives Lazarus her place as a prototypical modern American Jew.
Born in 1849 to wealth and privilege, Emma Lazarus was a fourth-generation American, descended from the Sephardic Jews who settled in New Amsterdam and Newport in the 17th century. Her family included the leaders of both Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and Touro Synagogue in Newport, and she was related to almost every distinguished American Sephardic family.
In her first poems Lazarus’ strikingly individual intelligence can be seen, notably her poem on Lincoln’s assassination, written in the voice of John Wilkes Booth, who, marked by “the brand of Cain,” comes to know the horror of his act. With a volume of poetry and translations behind her by age 18, she met Ralph Waldo Emerson and made the first of many intellectually rich friendships that grew to include William and Henry James, Robert Browning, Henry George, William Morris, and the editors of the leading journals of the day.
Her translations of Heinrich Heine alone brought her literary prominence and praise. Her work on Heine, who struggled with his Judaism, stimulated her own struggle with her dual identity as a Jew and an American. Although she never observed what she called “the Law,” she wore her Judaism openly in a time of overt anti-Semitism and wrote poetry and prose, including a story on Vashti, infused with her knowledge of both the Old and New Testament.
When the pogroms in Russia drew worldwide attention and thousands of impoverished and uneducated Jews to the United States, she broke into social action. She worked with the immigrants and the new Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society (now HIAS). In 1883, 15 years before Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress, she founded the Society for the Colonization and Improvement for Eastern European Jews, based on her idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and began writing on “the Jewish problem” for major journals. Her friendships with George and Morris influenced her political-economic thinking, although she never fully subscribed to their theories.
Throughout this active life Lazarus maintained warm and intimate relations with many women who were also trying to balance the life of an artist with the life of an upper-class Victorian woman. Her correspondence with them, saved on their side but not hers, reveals this struggle, as well as the deep affection and openness between them.
Writer, activist, feminist, Zionist, Emma Lazarus gave full expression to her American and Jewish heritage at a time when this was not socially expected. In bringing out the complexities of Lazarus’ life, Esther Schor, poet and professor of English at Princeton, has written a moving biography of a woman who deserves our respect and attention. Longer than the usual volumes in the Jewish Encounters series, Emma Lazarus is a fullscale biography with a selection of poems to acquaint the reader with Lazarus’ work. Illustrations, chronology, notes, sources, index.
Reading Group Guide
provided by Nextbook
Mention Emma Lazarus, and the Statue of Liberty is most likely to come to mind. But this 19th-century scion of an illustrious Sephardic family was so much more than the voice behind a single poem: an internationally known author, an ambitious single woman, an advocate for the oppressed, a snob, a caustic decrier of anti-Semitism, a firebrand for a Jewish homeland when most ridiculed the idea, a believer in a multicultural America a century before there was even such a term. In Emma Lazarus, Esther Schor brings the poet to life with all her complications and contradictions. The following is a list of questions to help guide you through her life and work.
Assimilating Jews, Assimilating America
“My religious convictions (if such they can be called), and the circumstances of my life have led me somewhat apart from our people.” — Emma Lazarus
“The United States is essentially the greatest poem.” —Walt Whitman
Born in 1849 in New York City, Lazarus grew up a privileged daughter in a metropolis whose population was exploding, whose culture and industry were booming. How did Lazarus’s upbringing during a time of progress — when Central Park was being created, and the Brooklyn Bridge painstakingly planned — shape her character and affect her literary endeavors?
Lazarus’s illustrious Sephardic family had roots in America reaching back to colonial days, but she liked to describe herself and her immediate relatives as Jewish outlaws. “Poetry became a way for her to be Jewish in America,” Schor writes. Specifically, how did Lazarus connect to her Judaism through her vocation? Did this connection change as she became more outspoken on Jewish matters? Do you think at the end of her life she would have described herself in the same way?
Lazarus credited Daniel Deronda — George Eliot’s novel about a young Englishman who dedicates his life to building a homeland in Palestine — with opening her eyes to the need for a Jewish state. She called Progress and Poverty, Henry George’s work on economic reform, “not so much a book as an event,” igniting her awareness of the need for ethical responsibility. Both works were written by non-Jews. Lazarus socialized and identified with non-Jews, expressing her fervent belief in assimilation and universalism. How was Lazarus’s inclusiveness perceived, by Jews and non-Jews? Was it in keeping with the times? How would such a universalist approach to specifically Jewish problems be seen today?
Lazarus created a category for herself that we take for granted now: the semi-affiliated Jew with a devotion to her people. What forces inspired Lazarus to take on this role? Why is it more prevalent now than in her day?
In “The New Colossus,” Lazarus calls the Statue of Liberty the “mother of exiles,” writing about it in a distinctly Jewish vein. What was Lazarus’s vision of American society, and how was it fueled by a Jewish sensibility? How does contemporary America resemble or differ from the image laid out in Lazarus’s poem, written more than 100 years ago?
Upon reading Lazarus’s sonnet, the poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote, “your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’être.” What was the statue’s purpose, and how did Lazarus’s words shift that purpose from the statue’s initial intent?
The Power of the Pen
“What do you read?…You read everything, I know & my question is idle.” — Henry James, in a letter to Emma Lazarus
“The Jewish Question which I plunged into so recklessly & impulsively last Spring has gradually absorbed more & more of my mind & heart.” — Lazarus, to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop
Schor writes that Lazarus “invented the role of an American Jewish writer.” How did she do this? How did this role affect her writing? What sort of implicit responsibilities and challenges did it carry? Was it limiting or broadening? Did she see herself as a Jewish leader, and if so, was this position ever in conflict with her vision of herself as a writer? Was it different for Lazarus than it is for a writer like Philip Roth today?
On occasion, Lazarus would write about the same subject for two different publications, and she would shift her tone accordingly. (“One acidic, for Jewish readers; the other sweetened, for a general audience,” writes Schor about Lazarus’ reviews of the short story collection The Jews of Barnow. Was this simply an instance of not revealing one’s true position “in front of the goyim”? Do writers today make similar accommodations?
Lazarus wrote in a variety of forms; she harangued and chided and inspired her audiences in lyric poems and blank verse, in essays and novels, and in weekly newspaper columns. Can you think of an American author today who covers similarly wide ground? Was Lazarus a particular case, or are cultural forces at work that make writers today more specialized?
The Second Sex
“I cannot resist the impulse of expressing to you my extreme disappointment at finding you have so far modified the enthusiastic estimate you held of my literary labors…” —Emma Lazarus, to Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I went out on Thursday evng. to meet my ‘fate’ and greatly to my disappointment he was not there…so I have to resume my position of old maid ad infinitum unless I inherit a fortune or turn out to be a genius like Miss Coutts or George Eliot.” —Lazarus, to Helena deKay Gilder
From the time she was a precocious adolescent, Lazarus displayed a healthy — some might say outsized — confidence that would be unusual for a woman in the year 2006, let alone in the late 19th century. Where did Lazarus derive her self-assurance? How did this quality serve her in her career and in her personal life?
When Schor writes about Lazarus’s visit to an ailing Emerson in Concord, she describes her “willfulness,” and mentions Ellen Emerson’s perception of her as an “alien, aggressive presence.” Time and again, Jewish women have been characterized as pushy and assertive. How does Lazarus’s behavior fit in with the stereotype? How does it complicate it? Did Lazarus try to counter this perception, or use it to her advantage? Would Lazarus have been viewed differently if she had not been Jewish? Does this same stereotype of Jewish women exist today or is it more nuanced?
When the freethinking, older Maria Oakley suddenly announced her engagement to a man she had known for only a few weeks, the 32-year-old Lazarus was devastated. Such developments threw into sharp relief her ambivalence about marriage and children. What was the nature of her ambivalence? Did her literary ambition trump her desire for a traditional domestic life? Or was writing merely an excuse for her to remain in a state of “perpetual daughterhood,” living independently in her wealthy father’s house? How much do you think Lazarus was held back because of the mores of the day? Could you see her marrying — or giving in to her curiosities about “Boston marriages” — if she lived today?
After her death, the obituaries took note of Lazarus’s “courage and logic of a man” and her “masculine vigor.” Her sister Josephine’s memoir, on the other hand, drew a portrait of Lazarus as a shy, “distinctly feminine” writer, a “true woman.” Was the fact of Lazarus’s sex — and the myriad ways she deviated from the soft, retiring ideal of femininity — as much of an issue as her Jewishness? Are the two issues comparable? How did they differ in complicating Lazarus’s life and career?
Mentors, Fathers, and Friends
“Am I capable of anything worthy and true?” —Emma Lazarus, in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I felt when I came home from your house as I imagine a good Catholic feels after Confession.” —Lazarus to Helena deKay Gilder
From a young age, Lazarus cultivated friendships with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American transcendentalist and essayist, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent author and abolitionist. Through these relationships, she sought confirmation of her poetic skills and entrée into the greater literary world — a world not confined by her Jewish identity. How did such mentors help to shape Lazarus’s career and establish her sense of self? How did their reactions to her Jewishness differ, and how did their positions reflect American culture at the time? Was Lazarus’s dedication of her book of poetry to Emerson simply a way to garner literary respect or the expression of an unconscious wish to perhaps pass among non-Jews?
Throughout her career, Lazarus displayed a long-standing sympathy with and affinity for the work of Heinrich Heine — first translating his lyrics as an adolescent, turning to his stories, ballads, and poetry in her late twenties, and then writing a sonnet and what Schor calls her finest literary essay about him three years before she died. What was it about Heine that drew Lazarus to his work? What were the similarities between the two writers? The differences?
The urbane, assimilated Lazarus was used to “genteel anti-Semitism,” according to Schor, and rarely discussed her Jewishness with her closest friend, the wealthy, worldly Helena deKay Gilder, who was disgusted by Daniel Deronda and felt Lazarus was an inappropriate match for her brother. And yet in her public life, Lazarus was unrelentingly outspoken against anti-Semitism. How did she reconcile her private and public selves?
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” —Emma Lazarus
“Forget your huddled masses, send nerds.” —Business Week headline
Sick and fearing death, Lazarus edited her own body of work for posterity, and omitted most of the Jewish poems, including the well-known “Banner of the Jew,” “The Crowing of the Red Cock,” and the translations of Heine’s poetry that had won her such critical praise. Why would Lazarus, who carved out a reputation for herself as a champion of the Jewish people, back away from this portion of her history?
Lazarus, the scion of an assimilated, upper-crust family, was decidedly not a member of the class of people she was championing. How did this class difference manifest itself in Lazarus’s behavior? What are some examples from Jewish and American history of similarly aristocratic leaders defending the oppressed?
Lazarus was a literary celebrity, a prolific writer acknowledged by presidents and feted by artists, a firebrand for Zionism and a defender of immigrant rights, but what she is chiefly remembered for today is giving the Statue of Liberty her voice. Is Lazarus’ legacy compromised or elevated by the iconic status of her sonnet? How do you think she would feel about the fame of this one poem, which lives on as a symbol of America, versus the relative obscurity of her other work?
Schor opens the book with an anecdote about visiting her young daughter’s school for its annual Wax Museum performance, and seeing three girls dressed as Anne Frank (and none as Emma Lazarus). Why does Anne Frank serve as such an enduring and attractive heroine for young Jewish girls, and how is Schor trying to counter that with her depiction of Lazarus?